Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD Inaugurated as 8th President of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, October 13, 2002

Sunday, October 13, 2002

October 13th Inauguration in Cincinnati
Historic Birthplace of Reform Judaism and HUC-JIR, Established in 1875

Inauguration Address Affirms HUC-JIR’s Commitment to Israel; Pluralism, Inclusivity, and Equality in Jewish Life; Pioneering Curriculum; and Responsibility to Humanity


David Ellenson Inauguration

From left, Rabbi David Ellenson, inaugurated by Burton Lehman, Chair, HUC-JIR Board of Governors, at ceremony at the historic landmark Plum Street Temple, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Janine Spang

Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, was inaugurated as the eighth President in the history of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the academic and professional leadership center of Reform Judaism, on Sunday, October 13, 2002, at Cincinnati’s landmark Isaac M. Wise / K.K. B’nai Yeshurun Plum Street Temple. The Inauguration was attended by over 1000, including the leadership of the Reform Movement, representatives of colleges, universities, and seminaries, and leaders of Jewish organizations and congregations from across North America, Israel, and abroad. The ceremony featured the participation of alumni, faculty, and students. Rabbi Ellenson was inducted into office by Burton Lehman, Chair of HUC-JIR’s Board of Governors. The Inauguration Committee was chaired by Ilene and Stanley P. Gold, immediate past Chair of HUC-JIR’s Board of Governors; the honorary chairs were Joan and Richard J. Scheuer, former Chair of HUC-JIR’s Board of Governors.

As HUC-JIR President, Rabbi Ellenson serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the four-campus, international university. HUC-JIR’s centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York provide the academic and professional training programs for the Reform Movement’s rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal service professionals, and offer graduate programs for scholars of all faiths.

Rabbi Ellenson, who was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1977, is the eighth President in its 127 year-long history and succeeds Dr. Norman J. Cohen, Acting President and Provost.

In his Inauguration Address, Rabbi Ellenson stressed the College-Institute’s commitment to the people and State of Israel, saying “the destiny of the College-Institute will remain intertwined and interlocked with the fate of our people in the State of Israel, and I intend to do all in my power to enhance the presence and influence of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem by expanding our faculty and increasing our student body in the years ahead….Our students in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New York who prepare for careers in the cantorate, communal service, education and the rabbinate will continue to study in Israel at our Jerusalem campus, and there they will learn the true meaning of ‘areivut, the idea of mutual responsibility that binds Jews worldwide into one people. Our graduates will know that when Jews are in distress in Argentina or Europe or any place on earth that their responsibility to the people Israel is absolute….More than thirty Israeli rabbinic students and dozens of Israeli teachers also currently attend our Jerusalem school, and they constitute the most precious resource for the growth of liberal Judaism on Israeli soil. In a country where an extremist and coercive form of Judaism on the one hand and a strident and unyielding secularism on the other have provided the only two meaningful options between which Israeli Jews can choose, the need for us to educate native Israelis as rabbis and educators who speak the language of liberal Judaism is urgent.”

Rabbi Ellenson also addressed the College-Institute’s responsibility to a pluralistic North American Jewry, in stating “we must recognize that the foremost concern of the College-Institute is the education and formation of scholars and k’lei kodesh who will be imbued with the spirit of Torah. At the same time, our graduates must be bilingual — they must speak the language of America as well as the language of Judaism. This means that our alumni must be prepared to speak to Jews in the synagogue. No venue can be more meaningful for the future of the Jewish people. However, the spiritual hunger of Jews in this country is acute, and we must not rest content to confine our Jewish passion to the synagogue alone. Nor can we gaurd or own denominational boundaries too jealously. Our students must be equipped to address Jews across what are already often-outmoded denominational lines. Our graduates must be found wherever the possibilities for Jewish renewal appear — in the settings of Jewish community centers and Jewish organizational life, as well as in the university.”

Rabbi Ellenson affirmed the concern for equality and inclusiveness that has long been the hallmark of Reform Judaism, noting “We proudly salute a full generation of women rabbis who have made remarkable contributions to Jewish life, and we are proud that the number of women on our faculty has increased significantly in recent years — these gains must be cultivated. The open embrace of persons of diverse sexual orientations must continue to be affirmed. We recognize the voices of those people who were previously prevented from participation in the public discourse of the Jewish people now contribute immeasurably to the fulfillment of the messianic vision of justice that lies at the heart of Jewish religious tradition.”

The College-Institute’s pioneering advances were also noted, as Rabbi Ellenson stated “the core curriculum project envisioned by our faculty, supported by the holdings of our libraries, archives and museums…seeks to integrate the academic, personal, and professional components of the education HUC-JIR provides its students so that our graduates will be optimally prepared to serve our community in diverse ways and settings. Our students must apply the values and wisdom of our tradition to the different venues where they will be called upon to serve in this new century. The future and fate of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion are at stake.”

Rabbi Ellenson stressed the College-Institute’s responsibility for the betterment of the world and urged that HUC-JIR take the lead, in cooperation with other Jewish institutions devoted to Jewish intellectual and professional development, to create an Institute for Advanced Studies to foster study and intellectual reflection in an open and liberal Jewish spirit on the great questions of our time. He said, “During these past few years, the world has borne witness to the terror and destruction that monists and fundamentalists of all types have wreaked upon humanity. Our task is therefore to create a setting where a decisive liberal religious spirit might emerge, an institute where all types of persons — Jews and non-Jews, academics and activists, clergy and laity — of different viewpoints and convictions could come together to consider how the ethical and social obligations contained in the Torah might find expression in practical programs and policy initiatives….Such an institute might potentially become a central actor in the life of the Jewish people, and would hopefully contribute towards a better future for humanity.”

In his charge to the new President, Burton Lehman, Chair of HUC-JIR’s Board of Governors, called upon Rabbi David Ellenson “to sustain the chain of Jewish learning and teaching; to preserve Judaism’s sacred texts, values and history to ensure Jewish survival; to promote the living interpretation of Judaism through a dynamic engagement with contemporary life and liberal thought; and to inspire all to build a better world where ignorance and injustice are eradicated, and justice and understanding prevail.”

The Inauguration processional featured faculty, alumni, and students carrying seven Torah scrolls — one of which had been rescued during the Holocaust and is permanently on view at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Museum in Cincinnati. In a symbolic moment, the scrolls were transferred from the generation of faculty and alumni to the generation of students, and then placed in the Plum Street Temple’s Ark. The Holocaust Torah scroll was used for the Torah reading during the ceremony and was passed from Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, Rabbi Laureate, Temple Israel, Long Beach, California, who had fled Nazi Germany to study at HUC-JIR, to Rabbi Ellenson.

The liturgy for the Inauguration ceremony was composed by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor in Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at HUC-JIR/New York, together with the assistance of Dr. Rachel Adler, Associate Professor of Jewish Religious Thought and Feminist Studies, HUC-JIR/Los Angeles; Cantor Israel Goldstein, Director, School of Sacred Music, HUC-JIR/New York; Rabbi Lewis H. Kamrass, Senior Rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise Temple / K.K. B’nai Yeshurun, Cincinnati; Rabbi Richard S. Sarason, Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought, HUC-JIR/Cincinnati; Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, Professor of Cantorial Arts, HUC-JIR/New York; and Composer Bonia Shur, Director of Liturgical Arts Emeritus, HUC-JIR/Cincinnati.

Featured participants included Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, the wife of Rabbi David Ellenson; Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, Chancellor Emeritus, HUC-JIR; Rabbi Norman J. Cohen, Provost, HUC-JIR; Ilene and Stanley Gold, Pas Chair, HUC-JIR Board of Governors; Richard J. Scheuer, Former Chair, HUC-JIR’s Board of Governors; Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Rabbi Martin S. Weiner, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Uri Regev, Executive Director, World Union for Progressive Judaism; Rabbi Na’aman Kelman, Director of Educational Initiatives, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem; Rabbi Robert N. Levine, Senior Rabbi, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, New York; Rabbi Jonathan W. Malino, Professor of Philosophy, Guilford College; Rabbi Laura J. Geller, Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills, California.

Liturgical music was performed by the School of Sacred Music (SSM) Choir — an ensemble of 26 cantorial students — and Cantor Israel Goldstein, Cantor Eliyahu Schleifer, Associate Professor of Sacred Music, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, and Cantor Sharon Kohn, Cantor of Plum Street Temple. The ceremony featured the world premiere of an Inaugural Musical Composition composed by Bonia Shur, performed by the SSM Choir and instrumentalists from the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.

The Plum Street Temple clergy — Rabbi Lewis H. Kamrass, Rabbi Ilana Baden, and Cantor Sharon Kohn — also participated in the ceremony.

Preceding the Inauguration was an Academic Symposium, “World Jewry: Retrospective and Prospective” at the HUC-JIR/Cincinnati campus. The symposium was moderated by Paula Hyman, Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History, Yale University, and included presentations by Ruth Gavison, Haim H. Cohn Professor of Human Rights at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Beate Klarsfeld, crusader against anti-Semitism, Nazi criminals, and Holocaust denial; and David N. Myers, Professor Jewish History, UCLA.

Visitors to the campus were also invited to tour its scholarly resources, including The Dalsheimer Rare Book Room, The Jacob R. Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, The Skirball Museum Cincinnati, and The Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education.

Following the Inauguration, guests celebrated at a festive dinner on campus, hosted by Ilene and Stanley P. Gold, Inauguration Chairs and Richard J. Scheuer, Honorary Chair.

Profile of Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D

Rabbi David Ellenson holds the Gus Waterman Herrman Presidential Chair and is the I.H. and Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. A member of HUC-JIR’s faculty since 1979, he has served as Lecturer, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor of Jewish Religious Thought. From 1981-1997, he also held the post of Director of the Jerome H. Louchheim School of Judaic Studies.

Rabbi Ellenson received his PhD from Columbia University in 1981 and was ordained a rabbi at HUC-JIR’s New York School in 1977. He holds M.A. degrees from Columbia University, HUC-JIR, and the University of Virginia. He received his B.A. degree from the College of William and Mary in Virginia in 1969.

Rabbi Ellenson is a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem and a Fellow and Lecturer in the Institute of Advanced Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1999 to present). He has served as Visiting Professor of History at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Lady Davis Visiting Professor of Humanities in the Department of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Visiting Professor in the Center for Jewish Studies and a member of the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department at the University of California, Los Angeles (1986-97). In addition, he has been the Blaustein Scholar at the Jerusalem Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies and regularly serves as a faculty member of the Wexner Heritage Foundation.

Rabbi Ellenson has published and lectured extensively on diverse topics in modern Jewish history, ethics, and thought. He is the author of Tradition in Transition: Orthodoxy, Halakhah and the Boundaries of Modern Jewish Identity (1989), Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (1990) (nominated for the National Jewish Book Council’s Award for outstanding book in Jewish History, 1990), and Between Tradition and Culture: The Dialectics of Jewish Religion and Identity in the Modern World (1994).

His work describes the writings of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist leaders in Europe, the United States, and Israel during the last two centuries and employs a sociological approach to illuminate the history and development of modern Jewish religious denominationalism. His application of this method has allowed him to emphasize the interplay between Jewish religious tradition and modern society in unique ways, and has prompted him to write and lecture on diverse topics, including early Reform and Orthodoxy in 19th century Germany, conversion to Judaism at the beginning of the 1900s, and the problems of medical ethics in present-day America.

Along with Dr. Stanley Chyet, Rabbi Ellenson co-edited Bits of Honey: Essays for Samson H. Levey (1993), and is the author of the commentary entitled “How the Modern Prayerbook Evolved” in the acclaimed Eight Volume Series on the Jewish Prayerbook, Minhag Ami – My People’s Prayerbook, edited by Dr. Lawrence Hoffman (Jewish Lights Publishing). He is currently at work on another book-length collection of his essays for HUC Press.

He has written over 200 articles and reviews in diverse academic and religious journals and books, including The Hebrew Union College Annual, The Journal of American Academy of Religion, Religious Studies Review, The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, Journal of Religion, Modern Judaism, Jewish Book Annual, CCAR Journal, Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionist, and Tradition. His academic lectures have been delivered at such institutions as Charles University in Prague, Ben Gurion and Bar Ilan Universities in Israel, Haverford College, Harvard University, Yale University, Brown University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Rabbi Ellenson is a member of several professional and academic societies, including the Association for Jewish Studies, the American Academy of Religion, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Southern California Board of Rabbis, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He has served as a pulpit rabbi in Port Washington, New York, and Keene, New Hampshire, and has worked at several summer camps of the Reform and Conservative Movements.

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1947, Rabbi Ellenson was raised in Newport News, Virginia. He is married to Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, who was ordained at HUC-JIR/New York in 1983. They are the parents of Ruth (married to Robert Guffey Ellenson), Micah, Hannah, Naomi, and Raphael.

Rabbi Dabid Ellenson Statement

The Covenant lies at the heart of our Jewish tradition. We must continue to have this biblical notion guide and inspire us as we strive to have the values of Jewish tradition speak in a relevant and humane way to the challenges and dilemmas of our time.

We Jews today, not less than our ancestors in generations past, are called to covenantal responsibility by the God of Israel, Who asks that we serve as partners — shutafim — with God in forming and mending the world. Each of us is challenged personally to see to it that mitzvot are performed, to strive for the realization of kindness, grace and mercy — hein, hesed, v’rahamim — in the world.

The notion of Covenant — brit — asserts itself collectively as well, for we also stand as part of a people, in dialogical relationship with other members of the household of Israel. We educate our students to affirm Jewish peoplehood and Jewish solidarity as the core values of their vocational tasks. We teach them words of Torah, so that they can bring these words alive and translate them into guidelines. These guidelines will cause them to perform ma’a’sim tovim — good works that will direct and inspire the lives of the people and the communities that they will one day serve.

This vision of Covenant provides an ideal of freedom and responsibility that animates the educational endeavors we undertake at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Our students internalize the history and memory of the Jewish past into their very being. This knowledge inspires them to feel a responsibility to the past and gives them the courage to respond creatively in their own voices to the demands of the present, so that the life-affirming values and enduring beauty inherent in our tradition can assure a vibrant Jewish future.


Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion

Hebrew Union College was established in 1875 in Cincinnati by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism, and is the oldest institution of higher Jewish education in America. Throughout its 127 years, HUC-JIR has been characterized by a continuity and stability of leadership unknown to most other institutions. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise led the College for 25 years, succeeded by the leadership of Rabbi Kaufman Kohler (1903-1921), who strengthened HUC-JIR’s commitment to the scientific investigation of the Jewish tradition; followed by Rabbi Julian Morgenstern (1921-1947), who rescued European scholars from the threat of the Nazis. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1922-1948), the founder and leader of the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York from its inception in 1922 to 1948, was a pioneer of the American Zionist Movement and a social justice activist. Dr. Nelson Glueck (1947-1971), who merged HUC and JIR in 1948, was a renowned biblical archaeologist who established HUC-JIR’s campuses in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He was succeeded by Dr. Alfred Gottschalk (1971-1996), a Zionist and modernist who enhanced HUC-JIR’s commitment to Jewish scholarship and community service, followed by Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman (1996-2000), a 26-year veteran of congregational leadership and former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus was opened in 1954 to serve the growing Jewish community on the West Coast. The Jerusalem campus, founded in 1963 as a postdoctoral school of archaeological and biblical studies, has grown to serve as the center for HUC-JIR students’ first year of study and the Israel Rabbinic Program training rabbis for Israel’s Progressive movement.

The College-Institute has ordained 2586 rabbis, including 392 women rabbis since 1972, when HUC-JIR was the first Jewish seminary to ordain a woman rabbi in America, Rabbi Sally Priesand. Since 1980, HUC-JIR has ordained 26 Israeli rabbis to serve Israel’s Progressive Movement, including 6 Israeli women rabbis since 1992, when HUC-JIR ordained the first woman rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Naamah Kelman. The College-Institute’s School of Sacred Music, established in 1948 to sustain Jewish liturgical music after the Holocaust, has invested 390 cantors, including 162 women since HUC-JIR invested the first woman cantor, Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, in 1975.

HUC-JIR has 295 education alumni leading and teaching temple religious schools, 483 Jewish communal service alumni heading Federations and Jewish communal and social service agencies, and 359 graduate studies alumni teaching at HUC-JIR and other distinguished universities and seminaries throughout the world. There are 915 Reform congregations that are served by HUC-JIR’s alumni and students.

Over 500 courses and 20 advanced degree programs in rabbinic, cantorial, education, communal service and graduate studies are offered at the four campuses. Continuing education and public programs are offered through HUC-JIR’s New York Kollel, Academy for Interfaith Studies in Cincinnati, Beit Midrash/A Liberal Yeshivah in Jerusalem, and at the Los Angeles School.

HUC-JIR’s libraries, with nearly 700,000 volumes, are ranked among the world’s largest repositories of Judaica and Hebraica from the 10th century to the present day. HUC-JIR’s American Jewish Archives comprise over 10 million documents preserving the history of the Reform movement and Jewish life in the Western Hemisphere, and include 2 million World Jewish Congress documents, establishing it as an international center for Holocaust research. HUC-JIR’s Skirball Museums in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Jerusalem, HUC-JIR Museum in New York, and archaeological excavations in Israel, present 4,000 years of Jewish history and culture.

HUC-JIR is accredited by the Middle States, North Central, and Western Association of Colleges and Schools.